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Just Talk to Each Other

LSA’s Program on Intergroup Relations has been working for 30 years to empower students to successfully bridge differences and create common ground — building a better and more civil discourse one speaker at a time.
by Brittany Smith

This is an article from the spring 2019 issue of LSA MagazineRead more stories from the magazine.


It’s a few weeks into the winter semester at U-M, and 100 or so students are sitting in a lecture room in Angell Hall, chatting while they wait for their “Intergroup Dialogue” class to start. Some students have on U-M branded maize-colored hoodies and some students have on fit-for-the-winter sweaters or brightly colored cardigans. They have an array of hairstyles, from sleek ponytails to bobs, purple-dyed manes, braids, faux-hawks, and curly twistouts. Some students have laptops on hand while other students have pens and notebooks to write in. 

The instructor begins by asking students to raise their hands if they attended a diverse high school, and a few hands go up. Then the instructor asks her follow-up: “What does ‘diverse’ mean to you?”

One by one, students shout out their answers.

“Diversity of thought.” “Racial diversity.” “Gender.”

The instructor nods, taking in the responses. It’s the students’ different perspectives, she says, their different backgrounds, values, and ideas that will power the course and shape how the students interact with one another. And embracing their differences is vital as, over the next 15 weeks, members of the class work to build bridges and create common ground between groups of people who may see themselves as having little in common.

The course is one of seven offered by the Program on Intergroup Relations (IGR), a social justice education program that supports research and trains students to speak across difference about sensitive topics. IGR’s work with undergraduate students focuses on developing three skills essential for successful cross-difference dialogue: listening, empathy, and perspective-taking. In a time when civil discourse suffers nationally, it’s more important than ever, says IGR Co-Associate Director Scott Hwang, to empower students to communicate meaningfully, persuasively, and peacefully across differences. 

Through this work, IGR hopes to transform heated debates into healthy dialogue.

“The main goal of IGR is to run these dialogues to move social justice forward,” says Hwang, who also works as IGR’s interim faculty co-director. “So much of this country is polarized politically, and intergroup dialogue helps to pull apart those differences and break down those barriers so students can interact and have more fruitful, productive conversations.”

 A World of Difference

In addition to its academic courses, IGR conducts research and offers student-centered workshops and community outreach programs on social inequalities and social justice. IGR also runs and hosts the National Institute on Intergroup Dialogue, an event for other institutions to come to Ann Arbor to learn IGR’s philosophy and techniques for intergroup dialogue.

Now in its thirtieth year, IGR is the largest and most comprehensive program of its kind in the country. The program currently enrolls nearly 700 students each year in its courses, events, and series, and employs 20 students through its various programs and as research and graduate assistants.

U-M sophomore Rashad Prendergast listening to another student talk during IGR’s Students of Color dialogue in Fall 2018. Image courtesy of IGR


But while IGR has been here for a long time, it has also changed—adapting to match the times. IGR Co-Director Monita Thompson has been with the program since 1993. At that time, the concept of intergroup relations was fairly new in higher education.

“Back then multicultural education was being taught,” Thompson says, “but it didn’t focus on power and privilege. IGR was a different, new, and innovative educational practice that brought groups together based on social identity to learn about social inequality, to work through conflict, and to address issues of power and privilege in an effort to promote a more just society.” 

It was the intersection of social justice and healthy dialogue that inspired LSA senior Danielle Jahnke to join IGR. During her internship as a peer educator for the nonprofit Uganda for Her in Kampala, Uganda, she found her IGR skills allowed her to be more thoughtful about her actions and motivations, which produced a more impactful experience for herself and for those she worked to benefit.

“I had to take a really close look at my intentions,” Jahnke says. “I had to really think about whether what I was doing was going to benefit other people more than cause harm.”

LSA senior and IGR minor Seth Schostak says that the program has helped him both academically and personally.

“IGR has given me skills that make me feel more confident and credible when discussing certain issues,” says Schostak. “Particularly within a group setting, there are many dynamics at play, and IGR has provided me with real skills to better navigate group settings, for having difficult conversations or working together with a team in a work setting.”

Even as it celebrates its thirtieth anniversary, IGR is preparing for its next phase. The program is expanding its undergraduate research team and creating more opportunities for community engagement while doubling down on its dedication to improving students’ lives through dialogue and social justice education.

“We often hear that other programs or faculty can tell who our students are because they’re more likely to engage in the classroom, ask questions, and bring in a different perspective,” says Thompson. “This is a transformational experience for everyone. They’re challenging the status quo.” 


2018 completes the second year of LSA’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Strategic Plan. 

Part of a university-wide effort, LSA’s DEI plan focuses on three main elements: increasing access to resources and opportunities at U-M; creating a culture that includes and values all voices; and strengthening the learning experience for members of the U-M community by harnessing the power of diversity. 


Increasing dialogue on campus is one of LSA’s major diversity priorities, including curricular programs such as the Program on Intergroup Relations (IGR) and the student-run cross-difference dialogue group WeListen. 

The college is taking a multifaceted, multi-level approach to achieving its DEI goals, says Interim Dean and Professor of Afroamerican and African Studies, Psychology, and Women’s Studies Elizabeth Cole. 

“We are committed to ensuring our community values and supports all students, faculty, and staff,” says Cole. “Our DEI plan reflects our commitment to creating an environment where everyone feels welcomed and where people use dialogue to work across difference.

“We have much more work to do,” Cole says, “but I’m excited and proud of what we’ve accomplished so far.”

Top image by Trina Dalziel/Getty Images
Release Date: 04/25/2019
Category: Students; Staff
Tags: LSA Magazine; Diversity; Brittany Smith